It was suggested to me recently that the things we mostly buy in gift shops aren't really gifts at all, at least not ones we intend to give to other people. Instead the modern museum gift shop is primarily intended for visitors to complete their experience by allowing them the chance to take home a suitable piece of memorabilia or to give the kids a reward for good behaviour when they've been dragged around any exhibition that doesn't prominently feature dinosaurs.
But with Christmas just around the corner, and internet shopping making gift seeking easier but more impersonal (and with the added pressure of relying on estimated delivery times) I'd like to think there's a lot to be gained from combining your shopping with a little culture - and who knows, you might even find the time to check out an exhibition or two to celebrate your new purchases.
Here then are five of my favourite gift shops that just happen to have great galleries and museums attached:
The Design Museum
Catnip for museum geeks, the Design Museum's shop may be small but, like many of the pieces on show in its collections, it's still perfectly formed. Good design has often been described as art you can buy, take home with you and actually find a use for other than covering up some empty wall space, and if the shop often comes across as more pop-up boutique rather than museum store, that's definitely a good thing.
Inside you'll find enough coffee-table books on design, branding and architecture to start your own creative agency, as well as a range of contemporary cultural home-wares, desktop decorations and electronic gadgetry to ensure your new start-up has a suitably trendy 21st century head start whether you're aiming for Shoreditch chic or Mad Men mastery.
The National Gallery
Whether checking the latest exhibition or simply stepping back to spend a quiet minute or two with your favourite piece from the gallery's vast permanent collection, a visit to the National Gallery is bound to inspire in all kinds of ways. One of those is almost certainly the notion that it would be lovely to take just one small piece home with you.
While the gallery takes a dim view on art theft, its more than happy to point you to the custom printing service in its gift shop. Here you can browse through an online catalogue of the gallery's collection, select your preferred print size, and then simply press print and take your new masterpiece home.
While not quite as big as the adjoining Turbine Hall, Tate Modern's shop is a book browsers dream, and many people have apparently reported feeling more clever simply by standing near the shelves.
It's not the size that impresses though, but the range, with everything from a children's art book section and biographies of famous artists sitting next to PHD level texts on post-postmodernist theory and Deleuzian deconstruction. They also have a great range for souvenir hunters, from the expected postcards and prints through to exclusive ranges of designer ware commissioned especially for Tate.
The Wellcome Collection
Although technically a branch of Blackwell's books situated inside the venue, the bookshop staff have focused considerable attention to their shelves, curating a changing display of modern medical and popular science titles that both link directly to the theme of the current exhibition as well as covering some of the most topical science debates of the day. It doesn't hurt that the bookshop is located at the far end of Wellcome Collection's cafe, which makes it the perfect site to soak up some coffee and free wifi while tweeting about your exciting new purchases.
And finally, while many museum gift shops are content to serve up some branded pencil cases, a few postcards and maybe a plastic toy or two for the young ones, the shop in the V&A knocks many boutique stores out of the park with its range of exclusive jewellery and fashion items (I'm told the scarves are especially worth checking out). It's also worth remembering that the equally excellent Museum of Childhood is also part of the V&A, so if you're looking for something a little different for the kids (big or small) this Christmas a museum that celebrates the best moments of childhood is surely a great place to start.
What's your favourite gift shop? Let us know your recommendations in the comments, and happy holidays.
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